March 6, 2014

Follow me on Twitter

This blog is now inactive, but you can follow me on Twitter @DeanMikeSimons.

November 26, 2012

Appreciating Jurors (and Judge Anthony Marano ’69)

With Rosalie Marano, Judge Anthony Marano, Nassau Chapter President Tom Foley ’93, and Alumni Association President Alan Hodish ’89

Earlier this month, the Nassau Chapter of our Alumni Association honored New York State Supreme Court Judge Anthony Marano, the Administrative Judge of Nassau County.  The reception at the Milleridge Inn was a lovely celebration of Judge Marano’s dedicated career as a public servant and his loyal support of St. John’s.Earlier that same day, Judge Marano had asked me to speak as part of “Juror Appreciation Day” at Nassau County Supreme Court.  I welcomed the opportunity to reflect a bit on what jury service means to me.  Here is what I told the several hundred assembled jurors:

I’ve been a lawyer for 23 years, I’ve been a law professor for 14 years, and I’ve been a law dean for the past four years.  But I’m here today not as a lawyer, or a law professor, or a dean, but as a citizen and a resident of Nassau County.

In a democracy, there are two main ways in which we get to participate in our government – by voting on election day and by serving as jurors.

I hope you all voted last week.  I did, and I get a special thrill whenever I do.  As Bob Scheiffer said during one of the Presidental debates: “Voting makes you feel big and strong.” When I vote, I feel the power of self-government.

But that power – the power of the vote – is indirect.  When I vote, my vote is only one of thousands or millions.  And it’s natural to wonder whether my one vote really makes a difference.  Moreover, when we vote, we’re not making the decisions about how to run our country or our county or our town.  We are electing other people to make those decisions for us.  That’s how representational democracy works – the people have the power, but that power is indirect.  It is our elected officials who make the law, who make the decisions for us.

But when we are jurors, it is very different.  When we go into the jury box, there are not millions or thousands of votes.  There are six or eight or twelve.  So there’s no question that our vote counts.  And, we’re not electing someone else to make the decision.  We are doing it ourselves.  Being on a jury is participatory democracy at its best.  The judges will run the trial, the lawyers will present the evidence and make their arguments, the judges will instruct us on the law, but the jury will render the verdicts.  Individual citizens – not judges, not government officials, not lawyers – are given the power to decide disputes.  It is an awesome power, a tremendous responsibility, and a wonderful aspect of our democracy.

There is a reason that our legal system gives that power to juries.  And I tell this to my students all the time: because juries are good at it.  It can be easy to be cynical these days, including about government, but the jury system really does work.  There’s something about bringing a group of people together – people with different experiences and different perspectives – and having them listen: listen to the evidence, listen to the lawyers make their arguments, listen to the judge give instructions, and then listen to each other – that leads to good decisions, to fair decisions.  That leads … to justice.  That is what you get to do today, that is what you get to do as jurors: render justice.

November 16, 2012

Saying Goodbye to Ted Jones

Judge Theodore T. Jones, Jr. ’72, ‘07HON was laid to rest today after a funeral service at Mount Pisgah Baptist Church in Brooklyn.  New York State lost a public servant of intense intellect, impeccable integrity, and deep compassion.  St. John’s lost a dear friend. I was privileged to speak at his wake last night. Here is what I said.

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When I think about Ted Jones, four words come to mind.  The first is achievement.  His was a life of remarkable achievement.  Starting with his military achievement in Vietnam, and continuing on through a stellar legal career: as a Legal Aid lawyer, as a private criminal defense attorney, as an elected judge, as an administrative judge, and then as a Judge of the Court of Appeals and a leader in the bar.  He was – by any measure – a great lawyer and a great judge.

But the other three words that come to mind when I think about Ted Jones have nothing to do with great achievements.  Those words are humility, compassion, and service.

When you met Ted Jones, you wouldn’t have known that he was a great lawyer or a great judge.  And that’s because he carried himself with such genuine humility – a humility that I believe grew out of his understanding of other people.  It is impossible to be a criminal defense lawyer and not have a deep understanding of – and compassion for – the struggles that affect others’ lives.  And Ted Jones’ compassion for others led him to a lifetime of service.

In 2007, we had the privilege of giving Judge Jones an honorary degree and having him as our commencement speaker at the Law School’s graduation.  We first read the citation, which detailed all of his professional accomplishments.  But when he took the podium, he didn’t talk to our graduating students about his great achievements; nor did he urge them on to great achievements themselves.  Instead, he urged them on to a life of service.  In particular, he urged them to serve the poor.  He told them a story about an experience he had as a young lawyer.  There was a brutal murder, and Ted Jones took on the defense pro bono, without a fee.  He was convinced that his client was innocent; the authorities were just as convinced that his client was guilty.  He worked on the case for two years, and after a grueling trial he won an acquittal for his client.  And then he told our students – who were sitting in awe of the many accomplishments that had led him to the pinnacle of our profession – that helping that man was “the most memorable and gratifying experience” of his career.

That kind of compassionate service defined his work.  You saw it in his work as a judge: in his opinions protecting the rights of individuals, particularly individuals accused of crimes.  (Now that doesn’t mean he was a pushover – he knew how to be tough when the situation demanded it. Just look at how he stopped the 2005 transit strike.)  You could also see that compassion in his work as a bar leader: whether it was tacking the issue of wrongful convictions or promoting the diversity that is so important to our profession.

For me, I could see his compassion most clearly in his service to St. John’s.  At the Law School, he was instrumental – along with his good friend Judge Phil Roach – in founding the Ronald H. Brown Center for Civil Rights and Economic Development, which has done such great work promoting diversity in the legal profession.  (I can only image what diversity initiatives Judge Jones and Judge Roach are planning together now.)  And at the University, he served with dedication on our Board of Trustees, I used to remind him that he was my boss, because the governing authority for the University, the power to run the institution, resides with the Board of Trustees.  And Judge Jones was happy to have that responsibility, but not because he wanted to be “the boss,” not because he wanted power, but because he loved St. John’s.  And he loved St. John’s because he loved our students.  His concern was always for our students.

In all his work, as a lawyer, as a judge, as a trustee – he devoted himself to serving others, with humility and compassion.  And that’s why he’s not just a great lawyer and a great judge, but a great man.

I’ll end with a quote from the Bible that I think is particularly appropriate.  In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is talking to the scribes and the Pharisees – the lawyers and judges of his community – and he tells them:  “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” And then he gives them an instruction: “The greatest among you must be your servant.”

In his life, Ted Jones followed that instruction.  In our lives, we have been blessed to have such a great man as our servant.  And today in our sorrow, we can take comfort in our confidence that this humble man is now exalted in the presence of the Lord.  Amen.

November 15, 2012

The Law School’s Response to the Storm (and more volunteer opportunities)

Below is the text of a message that I sent to our alumni yesterday:

Two weeks after Hurricane Sandy upended our lives, I write to update you on the Law School’s response to the storm.

Here on campus, both our building and our educational program have emerged intact. Like almost all schools in the area, St. John’s University was closed for the entire week following the storm. Throughout that week, the University’s Emergency Operations Team and many Law school employees worked tirelessly to restore power to our building and to get our students back in the classroom. Running on a generator, we were able to open for classes on Monday, November 5, 2012. (You can read my message to our students announcing the opening and explaining our recovery efforts.) Our faculty, students, and employees have responded to the disruptions caused by the storm with patience, flexibility, and perseverance. We have crafted a make-up schedule – using weekends and other open dates on the calendar – that will enable us to make up all the missed classes.

Everyone in our community was affected by the storm in one way or another. Most of the temporary inconveniences – power outages and gasoline shortages – are easing. But for some members of the Law School family, especially those who have lost their homes and cars, the storm has been life altering. Many students, employees, and alumni live in Long Beach, the Rockaways, Howard Beach, Staten Island, and other severely affected neighborhoods. The University community will be gathering on Thursday, November 15, at 12:15 p.m. for a Mass of Remembrance and Thanksgiving to pray together for all victims of the storm.

In the spirit of St. Vincent, we now turn our attention to helping those most in need. The Law School has formed two separate committees of students, faculty, staff and alumni to begin work on assistance projects. The Pro Bono Hurricane Committee, under the leadership of Professor Jennifer Baum, is organizing pro bono and other volunteer efforts to help victims of the storm. This past Sunday, Professor Baum, herself a Staten Island resident, led a group of law students to the Midland Beach section of Staten Island to assist with clean-up efforts. (You can read about and see a video of that trip on my blog.) Another Staten Island service trip is planned for this coming Sunday. The Pro Bono Committee is also organizing efforts to help storm victims with their legal problems. One of our first projects will be to provide disaster-related information sessions to senior citizens in Queens through our Elder Law Clinic (now known as the Consumer Justice for the Elderly: Litigation Clinic). We are also establishing a network to link student volunteers with attorney volunteers who are assisting storm victims. Alumni who are interested in helping with this project should contact the Pro Bono Hurricane Committee at SandyProBono@stjohns.edu.

We have also established a Hurricane Assistance Committee to provide financial assistance to law students and their families who are experiencing financial burdens as a result of the storm. Under the leadership of Vice Dean Emeritus Andrew Simons, this Committee will oversee a Hurricane Assistance Fund, which is already growing with gifts from generous alumni and faculty. We invite you to contribute to the Fund by contacting Associate Director of Development Philip Maroney at maroneyp@stjohns.edu or (718) 990-7991.

In many ways, this storm has exposed the fragility of our local civic infrastructure. But in other ways, the storm has revealed the strength of our civic bonds and the resiliency of our community spirit. I am proud of how the Law School family has unified to respond to the storm with compassion, with fortitude, and with determination. I look forward to working together as we continue our recovery.

UPDATE: Our Pro Bono Hurricane Committee is organizing two additional volunteer opportunities this weekend –

  • Broad Channel, Saturday, Nov. 17 (legal work):  Please join students, alumni, faculty, and friends this Saturday, November 17th, at the American Legion Hall in Queens (a FEMA distribution center), to provide legal assistance to Hurricane Sandy victims.  Volunteers must certify that they have watched a one-hour long training video, which will be screened at the Law School Saturday morning at 9:00 a.m. (and can also be accessed remotely at any time online; email SandyProBono@stjohns.edu for the link). Transportation to and from the American Legion Hall will be provided – a van is leaving the law school at 11:00 AM and returning at 4:00 PM. Please email SandyProBono@stjohns.edu ASAP (but no later than Friday 12:00 noon) to reserve an outreach spot.  This opportunity qualifies for pro bono hours toward NYS bar admission requirements.
  • Midland Beach (Staten Island), Sunday, Nov. 18 (humanitarian work): A Staten Island humanitarian service trip has been scheduled for this coming Sunday, 11/18. Transportation will be provided: the van will leave the law school at 8:00 am and return to campus by 1:00 pm. Shovels, gloves, water, cliff bars provided – you just need to show up, sign the waiver, and wear hard-soled shoes. Email SandyProBono@stjohns.edu to reserve your seat or get meet-up time/location.
November 12, 2012

Service in the Muck

At St. John’s University, we trace our founding to St. Vincent de Paul, and our work continues to be inspired by his zeal for service and compassion for the poor.  For law students, our Vincentian mission usually manifests itself through legal work in our clinics or in pro bono projects.  But sometimes, service is more manual than intellectual.  St. Vincent understood this: “Let us love God my brothers [and sisters], let us love God. But let it be with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brow.”

On Sunday, November 11, 2012, a group of St. John’s law students put the strength of their arms and the sweat of their brows to work serving still-suffering storm victims.  Led by Professor Jennifer Baum, the students traveled to the Midland Beach section of Staten Island to help with the storm recovery effort.  They waded through mud, muck, water, and debris to clear out property damage, engage in demolition, and deliver supplies to the Miller Field FEMA center.

This service project is just one of the efforts being organized through our Pro Bono Hurricane Committee.  More information is available on the Committee’s STJLawSandy facebook page.

Prof. Jen Baum (in red) with law students Andry Henriquez, James Waller, and Jennifer Kwapisz.

In this video, students James Waller, Andry Henriquez, Jennifer Kwapisz talk about their work.  Another group of students helped in the demolition of a destroyed home.  The homeowners were overcome with gratitude and emotion, tearfully explaining how their two cats died in the flood waters when they were evacuated.

The basement in the home on the left was still filled with eight feet of water. On the right is the demolition crew of Katrina Dibbini, Angela Capello, Joe Reigadas, and Mike McDermott.

According to Professor Baum, the personal stories were difficult to hear, but each student left deeply moved by the experience, re-committed to service and mission. When asked what they would say to  classmates and colleagues thinking of coming into the disaster site to volunteer, they said in unison: “do it.”

Some lessons can’t be taught in the classroom.

November 4, 2012

Weathering the Storm

After being closed for a week following Hurricane Sandy, the Law School will open for regular classes on Monday, November 5.  My message to the Law School community summarizing the recovery efforts is here.

November 1, 2012

New York Deans on Law Schools

On Monday (the day Hurricane Sandy hit New York City), the New York Law Journal pubished a special issue featuring interviews with the deans of all 15 law schools in New York state.

Here’s a sample from my interview:

In this economy, it is important that law students approach their education strategically so that they are not just “getting a degree,” but building a path to the profession. At St. John’s, we have structured our curriculum and our advising processes so that students can identify and develop a career pathway in one or more practice areas. That pathway will include foundational courses, advanced courses, drafting courses, clinics, field placements, and extra-curricular activities—all focused on developing practical skills and targeted expertise for profession-readiness. Lawyers who have cultivated expertise in a particular field, industry, or practice area are in particular demand.

My full interview, which touches on topics ranging from curricular changes to the new pro bono requirement, is here.

October 31, 2012

The Storm and Its Aftermath

Hurricane Sandy has come and gone, but the effects will linger in the New York area for a long time.  Many are without power (and will be for some time), some areas near the coast have been ravaged by flood waters, and mass transit is struggling to restore service.  Some people are dealing with much more serious devastation.

The University’s Public Safety and Facilities teams have been working around the clock to get the campus up and running.  The University’s message about the state of things on campus is here.  A message from University President Rev. Donald Harrington is here.

At the Law School, our problems are relatively minor, though they are still preventing us from opening.  Here is the message I sent to the Law School community earlier today:

I hope that all are safe and sound in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.  I know that many of you are dealing with storm damage, loss of power, and other disruptions.

Here on campus, damage from the storm is not particularly significant.  However, the Law School currently has partial power only.  A large generator is on site and is being installed at the moment; however, it will likely not be operational in time to open the building for classes tomorrow.  As a result, the Law School will remain closed on Thursday. 

There is a possibility that we will be open on Friday for regularly scheduled classes, but we will not know that until sometime on Thursday afternoon.

We will announce a makeup schedule, which may include adjustments to the final exam schedule, sometime next week.

Thank you for your patience as we work through the many issues raised by the storm.  Stay safe.

The coming days will require more patience and more flexibility.

October 28, 2012

Frozen Conflicts, Emerging Markets: Moldova and St. John’s

President Timofti

Last month, I was part of a small group that dined with H.E. Nicolae Timofti, the President of Moldova, while he was here for the United Nations General Assembly.  (Press coverage of President Timotfi’s address to the General Assembly is here.)  St. John’s Law already has a significant relationship with Moldova — a landlocked European country nestled between Romania and Ukraine.  The relationship goes back to 2004, when Adjunct Professor Mark Meyer ’71, ’07HON led a City Bar mission to Moldova that resulted in an influential report drafted by Prof. Christopher Borgen.  The report examined a still on-going separatist conflict in the Transnistria region of Moldova.  Since then, both Mark Meyer and Chris Borgen have become important experts on the international law aspects of the Transnistrian conflict.  As a result of their work, each has been awarded Moldova’s highest civilian honor.

At the recent lunch, one of the topics was the upcoming visit to Moldova by Prof. Meyer’s class Transactions in Emerging Markets. Two years ago, that class visited Romania, meeting with business and government leaders during a week-long excursion.  Next semester, the class will visit Moldova, for a similar week of meetings with business leaders and government officials, including President Timofti.  Those visits will provide students with an invaluable opportunity to take their classroom learning directly into the field.  Such travel courses (another will go to Scotland next semester) are just one component of our rapidly growing transnational programs at St. John’s.

October 28, 2012

Justice Kagan at St. John’s

A few weeks ago, Justice Elena Kagan became the seventh member of the current Supreme Court to be hosted by St. John’s Law.  Like Justice Scalia, who visited last semester, Justice Kagan spent most of an entire day at the Law School.  She had a lunchtime conversation with the faculty, spent an hour teaching Prof. Deepa Varadarajan’s Introduction to Intellectual Property class, had a public “conversation” with me in the Belson Moot Courtroom, and then mingled at a reception in the Mattone Family Atrium.

Throughout the day, Justice Kagan was gracious, engaging, funny, and eager to teach our students about her work at the Court.  Personally, I enjoyed speaking with her about her experiences at Harvard, where she was a very successful dean.  The highlight, though, was presenting this die-hard Mets fan with her own personalized Mets jersey as a mememto of her visit to Queens. The full story, along with more photos, can be found here.

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